September 2006 - Dr. Mary Harris

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It's hurricane season and I'm reminded that not long ago, a movie entitled "The Perfect Storm," was made about a terrible storm that was created as a result of several elements of nature all converging on the same location at the same time. Each of these elements by themselves may have caused bad weather, but nothing like the storm that was created when all of the elements combined. We all witnessed a similar tragedy when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Certainly, storms had hit New Orleans before, but during Katrina, the levees were breached, the residents were not prepared, the city was flooded, and large parts of the city, along with people's lives, were virtually wiped out.

Many baby boomers are about the face their own personal "perfect health storm," as factors in their lives combine to wreak havoc and potentially wipe out much of what they've worked to acquire. Consider that nearly 25% of American households–more than ever before–are providing long-term care to aging parents and relatives. Not a week goes by that I don't receive a call from someone asking advice about how to provide care for their aging parent or relative. This comes at a time in life when many baby boomers themselves are beginning to reap the consequences of growing older and their own health behaviors–poor eating habits, alcohol and drug use, lack of exercise. Combine this with the fact that many baby-boomers have not adequately planned for their financial future. They have no money set aside for health emergencies; they are unaware of what their insurance policies cover; they do not know how to access services for their elderly parents; nor do they have any idea what this will cost in terms of time and money. When all of these elements converge at a single point in time, you have the makings for a "perfect (health) storm"–a situation with the potential to devastate and wipe out a family.

Aging, illness and death happen to all of us and we need to be prepared. Yet, baby boomers often fail to face reality. Various surveys of baby boomers' financial concerns indicate that health care-related costs topped their respective lists of financial concerns during retirement–including health insurance, prescription medicine, and long-term care insurance. In projecting their longevity (if healthy), respondents said they hope to live to 80 to 100 years. However, when asked to estimate how long their savings would need to last after retirement, almost half of all respondents said they weren't sure. The fact is, only 24% of baby boomers have set aside enough money to retire. Moreover, a study conducted by the insurance industry on boomers' perception of the need for long term care insurance indicated that most baby boomers see themselves as living long, healthy lives, having a relatively short period of illness, and dying quickly. Well, the statistics don't bear this out. In fact, while we may live relatively long lives, chances are good we will live with chronic illness longer and we will die more slowly–all thanks to modern medicine and technology.

The take-home message is that you need–as best you can–to make preparations to avoid or at least prepare for your own personal perfect "health" storm. Consider taking action on the following:

  • Get yourself in good physical condition. By making certain you're doing all you can to be in good physical health, you reduce your chances of severe or debilitating illness such as stroke, heart attack and cancer.
  • Get yourself in good financial condition. Live for today, but invest in your tomorrow. Aside from hitting the lottery, most of us will not become millionaires. However, you can sit down with a qualified financial planner to help you assess what your future needs will be and how you can best plan financially to meet those needs with the assets that you have. Review your health insurance plans (and those of your aging parents), power of attorney and living wills, and familiarize yourself with the resources and services you're ultimately going to need. Make decisions about what you will do when the time comes to use those resources. It's much easier to make decisions when you're not under the stress of a health crisis and needing to make a decision immediately.
  • Get yourself in good mental/emotional condition. Let's face it–life happens. Each of us will have good days and bad days–we will not live forever. Get comfortable with this idea and try to find joy and peace in your life. Take time to meditate, enjoy family, give thanks for what you have and try each day to learn life's lessons.

You might say that you can't afford to do any of these things. Well, the truth is, you can't afford not to do these things!

Wishing you all of life's joys on your journey to wellness....

Dr. Mary S. Harris

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